CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Hurricane Matthew has strengthened to a catastrophic Category 4 storm as it barrels toward the heavily populated coast of Florida.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said the storm’s maximum sustained winds had strengthened to 140 mph as of late Thursday morning and were expected to maintain their strength as the storm approaches the Florida coast.
Hundreds of thousands of anxious people boarded up their homes and businesses and grabbed a few belongings to flee inland as Matthew roared toward the Southeast seaboard.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said the state, its skies already darkening from early outer rain bands of the life-threatening storm, could be facing its “biggest evacuation ever” as Matthew menaces almost all of the state’s Atlantic coast.
As people hurried for higher ground, authorities in South Carolina said a motorist died on Wednesday after being shot by deputies during an altercation along an evacuation route.
About 2 million people from Florida across Georgia to South Carolina were being encouraged to head inland and away from the most powerful storm to threaten the Atlantic coast in more than a decade. Matthew killed dozens of people in the Caribbean as it sliced through Haiti, Cuba and the Bahamas. As many as 98 people are reported dead in Haiti.
“This is a dangerous storm,” Scott warned. “The storm has already killed people. We should expect the same impact in Florida.”
While it remains unclear if Florida will get a direct hit by Hurricane Matthew, Scott said no one should take a chance especially since Florida’s coast will begin to feel the effects sometime around noon.
“Only a small deviation in the forecast track to the West could bring the center of the storm to us,” said Scott.”This storm will kill you. We don’t have much time left.”
Hurricane Matthew is barreling over the Bahamas and taking aim at Florida and was expected to near the Atlantic coast starting Thursday night.
The carrier George Washington, the amphibious ship Mesa Verde and the hospital ship Comfort have gotten underway from Norfolk but have not yet been tasked to provide any hurricane relief, reports CBS News correspondent David Martin. The Navy is anticipating a request from Southern Command which is running the military part of the relief effort.
Florida emergency officials said more than 3,000 people were already in 48 school-based shelters, mostly in coastal counties where evacuations both mandatory and voluntary were underway. Patients also were transferred from two Florida waterfront hospitals and a nursing home near Daytona Beach to safer locations.
Major theme parks in Orlando, central Florida, remained open but were monitoring events even as Walt Disney World canceled Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, a special ticket event scheduled Thursday night.
Up and down Florida’s east coast, storm preparations are in full swing, reports CBS News correspondent Manuel Bojorquez.
“This one, I just think we’re due. And that’s the reason I’m just trying to make sure everything’s good,” said one resident.
Store shelves are emptying. Gas stations are running out of fuel.
“I’ve already been to three gas stations that have shut down because they’re out of gas,” said another resident.
Deborah Whyte walked her dogs at Jupiter Beach Park on Thursday morning to check the surf.
“We boarded up our house and I boarded up my store” in Tequesta. “And we’re just hunkering down and waiting for it,” she said.
But others as far off as Georgia and South Carolina rushed to leave.
On Tybee Island, home to Georgia’s largest public beach, Loren Kook loaded up his pickup truck with suitcases and a computer late Wednesday afternoon to hit the road to metro Atlanta.
“It seems like a lot of the longtime residents are staying,” said Kook, who moved to the coast four years ago. “I’ve never sat through a Category Whatever. I’ll watch it on TV.”
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal had urged more than 522,000 residents of six vulnerable coastal counties to voluntarily evacuate. An evacuation hasn’t been seen in 17 years in coastal Georgia. Part of its coast was under a hurricane warning.
Officials at Florida’s major airports said Thursday that they are monitoring conditions as Matthew bears down on the state and warned of delays or cancellations. On its website, Fort Lauderdale International Airport announced plans to close at 10:30 a.m. Officials advised travelers to check with individual airlines about flight plans.
The storm is forecast to near the Florida coast starting Thursday night, potentially as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds. Any slight deviation could mean landfall or it heading farther out to sea. Either way, forecasters say it will come close enough to wreak havoc along the lower part of the East Coast, dumping up to 15 inches of rain in some spots. Storm surge of 5 feet to 8 feet was expected along the coast from central Florida into Georgia.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said tropical storm conditions with rain and wind are first expected in the state later Thursday morning.
Some residents were defying the dire warnings about the huge storm heading their way later Thursday and early Friday.
Bike shop owner John Long, who lives in Cape Canaveral, said Thursday that he was glad he decided to stay put even though most of his neighbors in the RV park had evacuated.
“No second thoughts,” said Long, who was reached by telephone as he sat in a lawn chair outside his RV.
“I’m not going to downplay the scenario, but right now, there is absolutely no sign there’s a hurricane offshore,” adding that it was drizzling with a slight wind.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley planned to call for more evacuations Thursday, which would bring the total to about 500,000 people in the state. Florida urged or ordered about 1.5 million to leave the coast, said Jackie Schutz, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott. About 50,000 people were told to go in Georgia.
Early Thursday, Matthew’s center was about 215 miles southeast of West Palm Beach, Florida, and slogging ever closer at a 12 mph.